Given recent developments surrounding Australia's immigration law, My Father's Left Testicle, a new piece of pitch black comedy from Sydney playwright Murray Lambert, could not be timelier. The play, which is on at Marrickville's Depot Theatre until Saturday November 12th, aims to uncover the bureaucratic mess and tortuous struggles faced by refugees.
For a play with such serious concerns, though, it was a surprise that the opening scene reminded me most keenly of the Marx Brothers, particularly their immortal political satire Duck Soup. The small cast of five here inhabit the first third of the fifteen characters that they will play throughout, an over-the-top caricature of a parliamentary cabinet wondering what is to be done with these refugees?
The solution is an "Assimilation Summer Camp," in which refugees will be interred to ensure that they are not able to practise their own culture upon arrival. From here, the cast play both a group of five asylum seekers who arrive by boat and find themselves in said camp, as well as a host of useless bureaucrats and professionals who range from oblivious to downright sinister.
My Father's Left Testicle performs a devastating juxtaposition. The Marx Brothers comparison remains accurate throughout, with wordplay (the title is a would-be response to the imperative to "go back where you came from"), extreme characterisations, and absurd physical comedy throughout. There are moments, though, where in an instant all the levity of the situation dissolves, and the audience's laughter intrudes on a scene of utter despair and desperation.
The cast navigates this divide beautifully. All of them possess superb comic skills, particularly Nicholas O'Regan, whose triple roles as refugee Ned, translator Mr. Cardigan and the Prime Minister could not be more different but are still hugely effective. Kristelle Zibara is one of the funniest performers - her Ms. Mayonnaise and her delightfully out of touch Treasurer are unforgettable - but the true power of her performance is in how the spirited Elsie is gradually worn down by her experiences.
Emily McGowan, who plays possibly the most vulnerable character Hannah, set upon by the lecherous Dr. Vanilla, is absolutely marvellous. Even when she is not the focus of a scene, her reactions feel real and genuinely emotional, making it all the more devastating as the end of the play draws near.
Like many satirical works, My Father's Left Testicle can at times feel slightly reductive, but the real power is in its powerful shifts in tone which are navigated beautifully through the cast's performances, which delve into some very dark places, as well as very effective but subtle lighting effects and use of music. Arguably the play also suffers from some slightly uneven pacing and staging that seems like it hasn't taken into account the semi-circular seating at The Depot Theatre, but these are minor quibbles.
The most powerful moments of My Father's Left Testicle left me with a physical reaction. There is one scream in particular that is seared into my brain, along with the uncomfortable prickling sensation that it caused across my whole body. It may be a comedy, but it is not for the faint of heart. This is a risk-taking, subversive work that is (sadly) likely to be relevant for a long time to come.
My Father's Left Testicle is on at Marrickville's Depot Theatre until Saturday November 12th. More info here. Production photos by Clare Hawley.